Metasynth has been around since 1999 but has so far remained a bit of a secret to most people. It’s ‘paradigm-smashing’ tools allow you create sounds that no other synth or software could even dream of doing. In this tutorial I’ll give you quickstart tour and some examples and show you why Metasynth is the coolest piece of software you’ll ever own!
What is Metasynth?
Created by U&I Software co-founders Eric Wenger and Edward Spiegel, Metasynth is a standalone sound design and music production tool for Mac OSX that effectively allows you to ‘paint’ sound. Metasynth is capable of creating anything from beats, melodies, pads to full blown 24 track productions as well as some of the most mind-bending sounds you’ll ever hear!
Used by some of the electronic musics most influencial producers and sound designers who’s names include Junkie XL, BT, Ian Boddy, Aphex Twin and Eric ‘Spectrasonics’ Persing, Metasynth has gone mostly unnoticed to a wider audience due to the fact that until recently it was only available for Mac OS9. 2009 sees its release for OSX and it’s full of new features and weirder than ever!
So how does it work?
Sound in Technicolor!
Metasynth uses a totally unique method to produce sound and I can’t think of anything that comes close to it in originality and creative depth. There are two basic ways to make sounds in Metasynth.
The first way generates and manipulates sound using ‘pixels‘. The brighter the pixel the louder the sound. Color also plays a large part of the creation of sounds in Metasynth. Red pixels are panned right, green ones panned left, and yellow pixels (a combination of green and red) are positioned in the middle. There is also a blue channel which does not trigger any events but is used to build grids, although it can be used to filter or ‘mask’ sounds.
How Metasynth interprets pixel information
Depending which mode your in the pixels either trigger built in instruments which include a simple Wavetable synth, a sampler, a Granular synth and a Multi Wavetable synth or can be used to filter (EQ) a sound loaded into the Sample Editor.
In the ‘Image Synth’ using the built in Brush and Shape tools you can literally paint sound onto a ‘Canvas’.
This canvases Y axis is mapped to semitones. The blue lines mark the Octaves.
Your image can then be shaped further with colored ‘Filters’.
Some of Metasynths filter presets
Here is the result of the Filter which adds stereo and amplitude information to the sound.
The second way to generate sounds (and images!) is based on Spectral Analysis. This is one of the most powerful features of Metasynth which I’ll show you later. You can even import photos and turn them into sound!
The Metasynth Interface
The Metasynth interface is divided into two sections. The Sample Editor and the XEditor.
The program consists of six ‘rooms’ that provide different functions. The Sample Editor is present in every room at the top while each room will have a different XEditor in the lower part of the interface. The sonic results of a rooms XEditor can be ‘rendered’ to the Sample Editor for further processing in a different ‘Room’ by pressing the ‘Render’ icon located at the bottom.
The Sample Editor allows you to import or record audio into Metasynth for processing. It has all the features you’d expect from an audio editor like Trim, fade In/Out, Normalize and the like.
To really understand Metasynth and how its synthesis methods work let’s take a look at the six ‘Rooms’.
The Metasynth ‘Rooms’
Metasynth is divided into six ‘Rooms’. I’ll take you through each one and explain how it works. I’ll be using part of the ‘Welcome to Metasynth’ demo audio that comes with the program. In it’s raw form it sounds like this.
The Effects Room
Sound Source: Sample Editor
The Effects Room is where you can manipulate audio loaded into the Sample Editor using a wide array of envelope based FX. These include types ranging from Granular FX to straight up Flangers and Compression. Here’s an example of the Pitch and Time effect. The Pitch is being controlled by the envelope in the picture above.
The Image Synth Room
Sound Source: Built in sound generators
The Image Synth Room is where the fun really starts and is probably where you’ll begin to build most of your sounds in Metasynth.
The Image Synth is based around a ‘Canvas’. The dimensions (in Pixels) of the Canvas can be chosen in the top right hand corner of the Image Synth XEditor along with the ‘Tuning’ or ‘Scale’ that is mapped to the Canvases Vertical axis and the Root or Reference pitch of the scale. The X axis is based on time with a default of 32 pixels per beat. A Canvas 256 pixels wide is therefore 8 beats long. 256/32=8.
A good example to get your head round this would be a Canvas 128 pixels high mapped to semitones starting at C-2 would you a pitch range comparable to MIDI. Now bear in mind that the Canvas can be 1024 pixels high and mapped to any possible scale. Crazy! Scales range from simple western types to full on Micro Tonal ones. You can even make your own scales based on the mathematical subdivisions of octaves (up to 1024) or Spectrum Analysis files created in the Spectrum Synth room!
When a pixel is drawn it triggers whatever note or frequency is mapped to that pixels position. This example is the result of the picture above that was drawn using some of the preset shapes and brushes. To produce this sound which took 20 seconds to create using the Canvas, this would take considerably longer using a conventional MIDI setup.
You have to remember there is ‘NO MIDI’ in Metasynth at all and all your dynamics are created using luminosity gradients and not ADSR’s or LFO’s . This means each pitched event can have a unique amplitude envelope and panning information based on its color. Try programming that with a synth in 20 seconds! Here’s the previous image example that’s had some Motion Blur applied to it!
The tools provided for image creation are similar to the features you’ll find in Photoshop. Blur, smudge, scatter brushes, line tools and custom shapes. You can easily draw dotted lines snapped to grid values, ideal for beat making! Did I mention you you can map a different sample to each pixel on the Y axis….no, well you can!
Any image you create can be saved to the preset list and Metasynth ships with loads of them too. More Metasynth libraries can be brought from third party developers. See the Resources list below.
The Image Filter Room
Sound Source: Sample Editor
The Image Filter Room works the same way as the Image Synth but instead manipulates the sound loaded into the Sample Editor. Each pixel on the Y axis now represents a high-resolution stereo bandpass filter. Think of it like a massive graphic EQ you can paint on! When a pixel is filled it allows the corresponding frequency through.
The Spectrum Synth Room
Sound Source: Sample Editor
The Spectrum Synth can produce Spectral Analysis files and sequences (you can reorder the slices to create rhythmic loops). You can capture the frequency characteristics of a sound and do all sorts of crazy things to it. You can re-synthesize a voice.
Or turn a horse…..
…into a cool beat!
You can also save the Spectrum files as Formant files and superimpose the characteristics of one sound onto another. You can also render the file to the Sample Editor and bring it into the Image Synth as a picture for further mangling! The sky’s the limit!
The Sequencer Room
Sound Source: Built in sound generators
The Sequencer Room is provided for times when you want to create musical passages in a more friendly musical environment. You can either render the sequence to the Sample Editor or turn it into an image in the Image Synth by selecting ‘Import current Sequence’ from the ‘File’ menu.
The Montage Room
Sound Source: Presets and Rendered or Recorded Audio
The Montage room (everybody needs a montage!) is a fully functioning 24 track music production tool. You can insert presets and sequences to tracks, add effects and generally mash up all your crazy Metasynth sounds! It will allow you to record audio and import pre-existing audio files too. Who needs MIDI when you’ve got Metasynth!
So let’s have a quick look at some of the things Metasynth can do.
Example 1 – Speech Synthesis!
First I’ll load the voice sample into the Sample Editor. Then I’ll create a canvas 512 x 512 and choose ‘Fit Tempo’ from the Edit menu (this ensures that the canvas tempo matches the duration of the sample). I’ll set the scale to Exponential with a reference pitch of D2. Then I’ll press the ‘Analyze Spectrum’ button.
The result is an image or Spectrograph of the sound. Each pixel represents a certain frequency present in the voice.
If I use a Wavetable synth set to a Sine wave to play back this picture I get a pretty accurate result.
So what happens if I use a different sound to play it back, like an Orchestral string sample?
Something totally different yet it’s still speaking the words!
I can then go on to manipulate parts of the image using say, the ‘Motion Blur’ effect.
This can lead to all sorts of strange and wonderful sounds. The ability to Blur, Delay, Smudge, Pan any part of a sounds audio spectrum is one of the coolest things I can think of!
Example 2 – Music from Beats!
In this example I’m going to create a musical vocoder like sequence from a drum loop using the same Image Synth technique.
First off I’ll load a loop into the Sample Editor. Then I’ll create a canvas 512 x 256 and choose ‘Fit Tempo’ from the Edit menu. My scale is set to Exponential with a reference pitch of A2 and I have some Noise loaded into a Sampler. Then it’s just a case of pressing the ‘Analyze Spectrum’ button. Here’s the result played back in the Image Synth.
Now I’ll increase the brightness of the image to get some more information in it using the ‘Brightness and Contrast’ controls.
I’ll now create a grid set to 16th notes.
Now I’m going to delete all pixels not covered by the blue channel using the ‘Grid Filter’ effect. Here’s the result.
After some filtering to add some stereo information I’ll use the ‘Attack’ effect to brighten the pixels and then use the ‘Reverb’ effect to blur the pixels to the right. Now I’m going to apply a scale to the image. Choosing ‘Pentatonic’ will delete all pixels not relevant to the pitches of that scale set by the reference pitch.
I’ll now decrease the contrast and start to smudge some of the pitches to the right to lengthen them. I’ve applied a grid that shows me the reference pitches octaves so I can accentuate them. I’ve also loaded a string sample into the sampler. Here’s the result.
What we’re left with is a a really cool melodic sequence. It took about as long as making a cup of tea (without the actual boiling of the kettle!).
Now even though the process and result are essentially the same as vocoding Metasynth goes way beyond the capabilities of a conventional vocoder. Being able to have precise control over every individual events attack, decay and pan would painstaking nightmare with a conventional MIDI synth/vocoder setup. This is a piece of cake for Metasynth as you don’t even have to consider MIDI as there is none, just pixels!.
So there you have it.
Proceed with Caution
One thing you need to know is that Metasynth only has one….yes, one level of undo! I’ve come a cropper a number of times due to this. Also Metasynth doesn’t do ‘Save’ like other programs. You save ‘Presets’ instead of a whole Metasynth ‘session’. Saving a preset saves the state of the current ‘room’ your working in so save them regularly. There are a number of file types pertaining to different areas of the program!
This quick look at Metasynth has not even begun to scratch the surface of what you can do with this software. The possibilities are literally endless! I hope this has got you excited about trying out this unique sound design tool. If your a Mac user I strongly recommend you try out the Demo (registration is required). This is a Mac only product so tough luck Windows people!
It has to be said it weighs in at a hefty $599 so it’s a real investment but in my opinion worth every last cent! There’s a great bundle at galbanum.com that includes nearly 10gig of presets and sounds for the same price! Check it out!
Enjoy the madness of Metasynth!
Here is a list of other cool Metasynth resources and stuff!
- U&I Software – the home of Metasynth and other crazy Mac software! Visit
- MetaEssentials – Handy utilities for Metasynth. Visit
- Hey, Who’s That Face in My Song?- Ahpex Twin faces the music!
- Galbanum – Huge library of Metasynth presets. Visit
- Example Presets
- Source fileSecret Message audio file and instructions!
- 10 Drum loop example presets created a from simple noise sample.